Family Life

10 Steps for Getting Organized and Back to School

Posted on January 3, 2009. Filed under: Family Life, Stop the Drama | Tags: , , |

Today is about Stopping the Drama

Photo by sergis blog


I have not written in months, but it’s time to start blogging again. My last entry was about a great pizza place I visited on a warm spring day in May. One day led to another, then I was deep into summer, and then it was back to school. Now that the weather is cold, and it is the New Year, I feel like getting back to Parent Jazz.

Today’s entry is about 10 steps for getting organized for back to school. With three school aged children, my house is in a constant state of near-chaos. However, there are some tips I’ve learned over the years and would like to share that help keep things less crazed.

  1. Pack up the kids’ school bags the night before. Cleaning out and packing up the school bag, collecting all of the papers, homework and permission slips the night before makes the morning process much less crazy. I also find that the younger are your children, the earlier in the day you should go though their school bags. I have stayed up late too many nights because I didn’t find the note from my kids’ teachers reminding me to send in brownies or some other treat the next morning until late at night. Even with older kids, this is a good exercise to help them think through and plan for the next day.
  2. Create a launching pad to get out of the door in the morning. Once the school bags are packed, put them in a place where everything is collected to go out the next morning. In addition to the school bag, this place can be where projects, sports equipment, special clothes and other necessary items are all kept. This helps avoid the last minute running around in the morning looking for shoes, glasses, gloves, or whatever other items tend to be forgotten until your kids are walking out the door.
  3. Have a space set up to work and study. I had to remind my kids, this does not include the space in front of the TV.  The study space should be away from distractions, well lit, and have school supplies nearby so your kids don’t have to go wandering around looking for things. With younger kids, a centrally located spot like the kitchen table is fine so an adult can supervise, help keep them on track and be available to answer any questions. Older kids don’t need as much supervision, but should not try to work in front of the television. 
  4. Make studying a habit. Establish homework and studying time as part of their routine. After coming home and having a snack, kids can then sit down to do their homework. Even when my youngest has no homework, we give 15-20 minutes of some extra reading or other type of work to do at home just to establish the habit. As kids get older and get into other activities such as sports, it becomes increasingly important to establish the habit of sitting down at a specifc time to do their work.
  5. Create a school folder for each child. This is the place where all the reminders, permission slips, teacher notes, and notices are kept. Every child will bring home loads of paper notices, and you need to have single place to keep all of that information. In addition, to having a place to keep it, you also have to have a set time to deal with it. For us, it’s during dinner. So when my kids come home and say “I need you to sign this”, I have them put it in their school folder and we can go through it during dinner. This also gives me a chance to coordinate all of the kids schedules and make sure we don’t commit to attending a concert for one kid, when there is another conflicting event for another kid. This leads me to the next tip….
  6. Put up a family calendar. List everyone’s commitments and events, where they will occur, what time, and what is needed for those events. We use it for both school and social commitments such as birthday parties, as well as doctor’s appointments. Again, with more than one kid and working parents, having that visual reminder of who needs to be where, and when helps keep us organized. It also is the place where things can “land”, meaning when a notice or appointment comes in, I can put it on the family calendar and not have to worry about losing it.
  7. Meet other parents and exchange phone numbers. Despite having systems to keep track of notices, there will be times when you need another source of information about what’s going on in school. This is when other parents can be helpful. In addition to sharing information, it simply helps to build relationships with other adults with children. Your child will develop friendships with other kids in class and the kids will want to spend time at each other’s house. Knowing the parents helps to make sure your child is safe, and you are comfortable having her spend time in someone else’s home.  
  8. Buy things in bulk so they are on hand whenever you need them. For me this starts with school supplies, so we have lots of paper, pencils, and other supplies on hand for most of the year. However, I also use this strategy for things like brownie mix, which I buy from Cotsco so we always have some available for school events, bake sales, pot lucks and other brownie emergencies. In addition, at the beginning of the school year I will buy several gender neutral, age appropriate toys and have them wrapped. So over the course of the year, as my kids get invited to birthday parties, we have a wrapped present on hand and have one less errand to run on the weekends.
  9. Plan for breakfast. Studies show that children who eat breakfast perform better in school. So make sure your child doesn’t leave the house without having something to eat. The best breakfast does not have a lot of sugar, and consists of complex carbohydrates and some protein. While this could involve cooking an egg with toast, or oatmeal with milk, you can create “grab-n-go” breakfast like a bagel with peanut butter, or yogurt with granola. The point is to not have to think about it in the morning, but to set up standard breakfast options so it’s one less decision to be made on busy mornings. 
  10. Get everyone to bed on time (especially the parents!). I’ve written about the importance of sleep before. In this case, it applies to both the parents and the children. I have teenagers, and it is harder to get them to bed on time than when they were younger. When they stay up late, it is hard to get them up in the morning, they usually oversleep, and it makes the whole morning routine rushed and chaotic due to lack of time and focus.  On the other hand, my youngest is in bed on time, getting her up is a breeze, and her mornings run very smoothly with no grumpiness and very little drama. So get everyone to bed on time.

Over the years, I have used each of these tips and find they work and are really helpful. Unfortunately, I have not been able to implement all of them at the same time. Hopefully, you will be better able to put these tips into practice to make the school year run smoothly for your family.


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Stop the Sweet Sixteen Madness!

Posted on March 30, 2008. Filed under: Family Life | Tags: , , , |

Today is about Family Life.

I have teenagers. And like most American teenagers, they watch MTV. As a result, they have been exposed to “My Super Sweet Sixteen” which is a show about over the top sweet sixteen birthday celebrations. While she did realize that the show is about over the top coming of age parties, after going to a couple of bar and bat mitzvahs in the eighth grade, my daughter started to drop hints about wanting to do something REALLY special when she turned sixteen. I could just see her eyes light up as she imagined an event that would make her queen for the day.

Where did all of this need to celebrate each birthday like it’s a national holiday arise? I remember my 16th birthday was the year I was allowed to have a house party with some of my friends coming over–I have no recollection what we did for my sister who is one year younger.

So can we parents make a pact? Can we promise to keep it simple, not raise expectations about wedding-like sweet sixteen parties, and stop this madness? As we have gone through this past school year, I held my breath waiting to see what kind of sweet sixteen invitations would come in. It turns out, there were very few. Unlike eighth grade, when each weekend found my kids at a major bar or bat mitzvah event held in every country club in the county, this year has been relatively quiet. So I think the sensible nature of most of parents is prevailing, and we are not having over the top events.

I am doing my part. As long as she has been lobbying for a fantastic sweet sixteen event, I have held steadfast and said “No”. Having seen what some of these events are like, I realized that it was a choice between her dream Sweet Sixteen party and paying for her first year of college–I choose college. We are currently discussing a more sedate barbecue for 50 of her closest friends.


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Achieving a Work Family Balance

Posted on February 17, 2008. Filed under: Family Life, Stop the Drama | Tags: , , , , |

Today is about Family Life

Photo by ghewgillbalance21.jpg
Achieving a balance between work and family seems to be the “holy grail” for so many of my friends.

First let me state “I want to work”. I work because I want to accomplish things outside of my home. I work because my family needs the money. I work because I want to be a role model for my daughters. I work because I want to maintain my financial independence. I have worked ever since my daughters (who are now teenagers) were born. While working is important to me, my family is even more important. So I need to balance the two.

Over the years, I’ve had lots of conversations with other women about the work/family balance. We all have different ways of dealing with the challenges, but most of us are able to manage it. Thinking about my own experience as a working mother, and watching the efforts of my friends and colleagues, here are some tips I’ve picked up that are helpful for achieving the work/family balance. At the core of most of these is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t do it all. And that’s OK.

Get as much support from your partner as you can, and then get more help. It seems obvious, but get all the help you can. In the ideal world , our partners or husbands would be the person we most rely on for help. In the real world, the work of running a home, caring for our kids, and managing everyone’s lives is rarely evenly split between both partners–even if they are both working. It’s been 20 years since Arlie Hochschild wrote The Second Shift, but her observations are still valid; most working women take on a larger part of household responsibilities, particularly if they have children. This may seem unfair. You can get mad. Get upset. Get on your partner’s case. But none of that is as effective as getting more help. Some of this help can come from family and friends and some you will need to pay for. Don’t limit your help to the obvious need of child care. You can also get help with other parts of your life. This includes (but is not limited to) help with cleaning your home, grocery shopping, meal preparation, caring for parents, shopping for clothes, vacation planning, getting your kids’ hair done, planning birthday parties, and buying Christmas gifts. Obviously, each of these services is going to cost you money, and I would not recommend doing all of them. But knowing that you can’t do it all, you need help to manage all of your responsibilities and there are plenty of people (and service providers) who can help.

Forget about being perfect, and embrace being good enough. Decide what is important to you and what isn’t, and this gives you guidance about what things to let fall through the cracks. There are some things that should never slip (like celebrating your child’s birthday), while you can let other things go if you don’t have time (like sending out Christmas cards). Your kids want your time and attention more than anything and understanding their priorities will help you keep yours. Sitting down together for dinner every night should be a priority. If it’s pizza or some other take out food, rather than a home cooked meal, your kids won’t mind so you shouldn’t either. Personally, I’ve given up on having a neat house. My house gets really cleaned every two weeks, but then chaos (meaning my husband and kids) comes in and leaves clothes, toys, books, and shoes everywhere. I can get a single room neat, but I never have the whole house looking put together and that is good enough.

Sometimes you need to scale back at work. I have friends who decided to work four days per week to give themselves a bit more flexibility with their time. Others chose to take on less demanding jobs when their children were young, and then lobbied for more responsibilities or a promotion as their kids got older. Your kids’ needs change over time, and the amount of time and attention you can give to your work will change too.

Sometimes you need to scale back at home. I can’t be the class mom, attend every PTA meeting (especially the ones scheduled for 10:30AM!), be an escort on every class trip, and often buy brownies instead of making them for bake sales. If your kids participate in sports, then it means a lot of dropping off and picking up for practice, plus lots of travel to go to games. I can’t do all of that. So I ask my kids to think about what is really important to them, and then I get involved (or get help) with the things they care about. This is why one of my kids did not join the travel soccer team, but did join the track team.

Look for jobs that give you flexibility. The hardest part of the balance is the day to day juggling. Who does drop off and pick up from daycare or school? How do you get home on time for parent teacher meetings, or recitals, or plays, or sporting events? Where is the time to make dinner? If time at your job is not flexible, then there is no easy answer to dealing with these challenges (except to think about another job). If you are fortunate to have a flexible job, you can arrive late or leave early when needed, work at other times like on weekends, or work at night so you can attend to your family. I know a nurse who works 12 hour shifts from 7PM to 7AM. Then she goes home, gets her kids ready for school, goes to sleep and wakes up in time to pick them up from school. Since her shifts are 12 hours, she works three shifts per week for a full-time job. It isn’t easy, but her job flexibility lets her be there for her kids.

Do work when at work, be home when at home. Wherever you are, give it your full attention. I once complained to someone about my challenges of focusing on work and family. I found myself in meetings thinking about Halloween costumes, and when I was at home thinking about projects at work. None of this was making me more effective, and I was constantly feeling pulled in different directions. He recommended I read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn. This is basically a book about meditation, but I found it helpful because it talked about “being in the moment” and giving my full attention to the present task. So rather than feeling scattered all the time, I focus on my current situation.

Set work/home boundaries. Part of being able to focus is because I designate the time and place for everything I need to do. When I am at work, I try not to work on home issues. When I am at home, I try not to think about work. I go so far as to leave myself voice mail messages. If I am home and I have a thought about something work related, I call my office, and plant the work related item there on my voice mail. Then I know it will get addressed when I am back in the office, and I can spend my time at home focusing on my home life. Obviously, things happen and I can’t always stick to this plan to compartmentalize my life, but making the effort helps me to feel less scattered.

Be prepared for the teen years. When my kids were young, I had lots of options for daycare. As they got older, they went into school and our need for child care became less intense. When they became teenagers, I realized that they still needed support and supervision after school, but unlike when they were young, I had very few options for getting help with my teenagers. Working mothers often make lots of plans to scale back at work or bring in extra help when their children are young. Now that I have been through both phases, I often advise other working mothers who want to scale back to think about waiting until their kids are teenagers. Parents can make use of several daycare options that are available when their kids are younger. But I think the toughest time is when your children are teenagers. There are not a lot of options for teenage care, and having your teens home and unsupervised for several hours each day can be a set up for trouble. So while it seems counterintuitive, realize that teenagers have a lot of need for parents to be around, and you will need to plan for their care and supervision just as much as when they were younger–but you will have fewer options for outside help.

Everyone I know who is juggling work and family family feels stretched thin from time to time. However, by having a good support network, setting your own priorities, and being satisfied with being less than perfect, I find most women are making it work for themselves and their families.


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    Family Date Night

    Posted on January 25, 2008. Filed under: Family Life |

    Friday is about Family Life

    Try to have a Family Date Night once in a while. When my kids were younger Friday night was my favorite night of the week. First because it was the end of my work week. Second, it was the night we set aside as Family Date Night. This was when we choose to do things as a family. Activities included going to a new movie, staying in and renting a movie, playing a game, going out to dinner, out for ice cream, or some other activity we all enjoyed. On some nights we talked and laughed, while on others it was just a pleasant evening together. I looked forward to every Friday because the evening was a time when I knew I would be able to focus on my family, and not think about getting ready for work or school the next day.

    As my children grew, so did their social calendars. After a while, Fridays became the time for hanging out with friends, going to the movies, participating in their activities or going to sporting events. After a while, Family Date Night became a thing “we used to do”, and it’s now a nice memory we share.

    So before your kids get older and really involved with their friends and activities, try to have a regular Family Data Night. If your kids are already older, try to have a Family Date Night–even if you have to schedule it around their other activities.



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    When Does Parenting Get Easier?

    Posted on January 18, 2008. Filed under: Family Life |

    Friday is about Family Life

    My two older children were born 16 months apart, and it was tough when they were toddlers. Two kids in diapers. Two kids who woke up at the crack of dawn. Two kids who were constantly on the run. Two kids who didn’t like to nap. There were days when all I wanted to do was to curl up into a ball and sleep until they were old enough to go to school.

    I knew my job would be less tiring and stressful as my kids got older, but I wanted to know exactly when that would happen. One day I asked a friend whose children were older than mine “when is this going to get easier”? Her response was “it doesn’t get easier, it gets……different”. Hmmm, now what does THAT mean?

    By the time my kids started school, caring for them was easier because they were potty trained, could talk, and were able to follow more directions. However, their being in school meant I had to pack lunches, help with projects, oversee homework and help with class trips. They also had more friends so we started managing their social calendars which were filled with birthday parties and playdates. Next came sports, and our Saturdays were filled with attending games and cheering them on.

    Now they are older and in high school. They REALLY talk, and seem less able to follow directions than when they were younger. Their activities and interests have us dropping them off for team practices at 7AM on weekends, attending sporting events and plays, and scheduling our family vacations around their activities because they do not want to miss anything. Parties now require a lot of monitoring from us as parents to make sure they are safe, no liquor or drugs will be available, and there is adequate adult supervision.

    Very soon they will learn how to drive. One mother told me watching her child drive away in a car for the first time was the scariest moment in all her experience as a parent. I can imagine what that will be like, and now I will have sleepless nights because I am waiting for my children to come home.

    So I finally have figured out what my friend meant when she said it gets “different”. Parenting can be stressful. In the beginning the stress was about sleep deprivation, but my children’s needs were fairly simple. Later it morphed into the stress of time management and my kids’ need to explore the world. Most recently, it has been about their need to distance themselves from their parents, which sometimes conflicts with our need to protect them and keep them safe.

    I also notice that as my kids get older, we talk, we joke, we laugh, we can enjoy each other’s company. The time goes quickly, and I am very aware that my children will be leaving home soon. I wonder if it will finally feel easy to be a parent when my children go off to school or get their first jobs. Perhaps. Or perhaps it will be the next phase of “different”.


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    Teaching Kids How to Budget

    Posted on January 17, 2008. Filed under: Family Life, Frugal Living | Tags: , , , |

    Thursday is about Frugal Living

    Photo by r-z

    coins2.jpgThe lessons I’ve learned from frugal living will be wasted if I don’t teach these principles to my children. Right now, I am trying to teach my kids about managing money and just started an experiment. I put money into an account for them whenever I get paid, and that is the money they can use for buying clothes and entertainment. If they want to save the money they can. If they want to spend it they can. However, when they want to buy clothes or go out and do things, the money comes from that account. If there is no money, there is no going out.

    I am doing this with my older daughters who are ages 14 and 15. I figure at that age, they should be able to manage their money and learn how to keep a budget. When I first told them about this, they were thrilled. I decided to give them $75 every time I get paid (that’s twice per month), and they agreed that was a lot of money for them. I came up with that amount because I usually take them shopping for clothes twice per year, and spend about $500 each time. I also added in the costs of getting their hair done, and going to the movies and came out with an average of $150 per month.

    Now when they ask me if they can buy something or go somewhere, I can simply say “Yes, if you have the money for it in your account”. This has really made things easier for me to manage. I have the money that is going into their accounts set aside in my budget. When they want to make a purchase, I don’t have to worry about what it costs–now that’s for them to figure out.

    One of my daughters has learned how to save her money and now has a good amount saved up. The other spends it as soon as it comes in. She’s still learning, as are many adults.


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    What Not to Do to Get Your Child to Eat More Fiber

    Posted on January 11, 2008. Filed under: Family Life | Tags: , , , |

    Friday is about Family Life

    My four year old’s eating habits are like many other preschoolers–she only eats white foods. Food like potatoes, rice, pasta, milk, sugar, and yogurt are her favorites. Anything with color, like green or orange vegetables or fruits, are a challenge to get into her. She is my third kid, and I learned with the others to keep on introducing new foods and kids will ultimately eat a variety of good things as they grow older. However, before that time comes, I worry if she is getting enough vitamins and fiber from the food she does eat. I give her a daily vitamin, but don’t have a lot of options for giving her extra fiber.

    Then my husband picked up some psyllium from the health food store. Psyllium is a type of seed husk that has a lot of fiber and is the main ingredient in products like Metamucil. It comes in a powder form, and almost looks like finely ground wheat germ. Most people mix a tablespoon into a glass of water and drink it down. Although that can be a challenge because it absorbs water and becomes a bland tasting, viscous fluid with psyllium grit. The bottom line is there is no way a kid is going to willingly drink it down.


    There are a bunch of cookbooks that recently came out that tell parents how to hide good foods like vegetables in everyday foods kids are willing to eat. So having heard about the successes these authors had in sneaking good foods into their kids, I devised a plan where I was going to do the same. My plan was to make my daughter a bowl of Farina for breakfast (it is another white food she will eat), and sprinkle some psyllium on top of her cereal. I then realized it would add color to her cereal and thought it would be better to just put it into the boiling water and cook it with her cereal.

    What I learned is you are not supposed to cook psyllium. It absorbs all of the liquid and forms a gelatinous blob, that looks like a mixture of Farina and snot. (here’s a picture). I figured she wouldn’t eat that either.

    In the end, I had to start all over and make a new pot of cereal. I sprinkled the psyllium on top and she ate it without a question.

    Congrats to those cookbook authors and their successes at creating healthy foods for their kids. I will keep it simple and stick with vitamins, sprinkling psyllium on top of her food, and waiting until she out grows her picky eating .


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    Why I Love my Sisters

    Posted on January 4, 2008. Filed under: Family Life | Tags: , , , , |

    copy-of-blog-010.jpg I have two sisters. We live hundreds of miles apart, but are in touch 4-5 times per week. This amazes my husband, although he says he really likes my sisters, with all of their idiotsyncrasies (this is not a typo, this is what he meant to say).

    Some reasons why I love my sisters:

    • They know that I really, really love chocolate and gave it to me for Christmas (as you can see on the left). Not just any chocolate, but an international variety of the good stuff.
    • They are really smart and we have great conversations-I spent an hour talking to my sister about the results of the Iowa Caucuses, the implications of Barack Obama’s win, Clinton’s third place showing, and strategies for the Democrats to take back the White House.
    • They make me laugh-about 20 minutes into the conversation, I realized my sister had been drinking because something she said made no sense. When asked, she admitted that she had worked her way through half a bottle of wine that evening.
    • They help me dream-we also talked about plans to go to Asia this year, and are trying to choose between Bali and Thailand.
    • My kids love them-one aunt is the cool young aunt, who they trust to buy clothes for them; the other aunt is the crazy fun aunt, who they don’t trust but always look forward to her visits.
    • My kids say they hate it when my sisters come around, because it gets too loud in the house with all of the talking and laughter.
    • They can generate a lot of drama (just ask my husband), and have helped me commit to living a simpler life.
    • They cheer me on when I tell them about my running.
    • We can talk about yoga.
    • One sister works as an environmentalist, and the other thinks global warming is a myth–this makes for fun family gatherings.
    • They are always there.

    Having sisters is great.


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    Introduction Basics

    Posted on December 28, 2007. Filed under: Family Life | Tags: , , , |

    Photo by PoagaoPhone
    A boy called our home the other day to speak to one of my teenage daughters. When my husband picked up the phone, the boy introduced himself and asked for my daughter. When he was told she wasn’t home, he asked if he could leave a message and thanked my husband afterwards.

    None of this may seem eventful, but it was the topic of MAJOR discussion in our home because this is the first boy who has called the house who seems to know how to actually use the phone. Others have called and asked for my daughter without greeting the person picking up the phone. Some have called after 11PM, and there was one who simply hung up the phone whenever and adult answered. Is it really too much to ask kids to engage in standard greetings with adults? It’s ridiculous that kids seem so uncomfortable simply saying hello and greeting adults.

    I recently walked my daughter through the specific steps she should take when introducing her friends to me, because I wanted her to set the tone for how her friends should greet me and to give them some guidance. It also just makes things easier because I do not have the same last name as my children so it helps the kids to know what name to use. Part of this was prompted because her introductions had become “this is my mom”—as if I have no name or identity. When I told my daughter I wanted her friends to call me by my last name, she seemed surprised. This is partly because I allowed her friends to call me by my first name when she was younger. However, as she (and her friends) became teenagers, I found that they started to treat adults with less respect and more disdain. As a result, the respect that younger kids give to adults doesn’t make the use of last names as necessary. But as they get older—and less respectful—and we have to set more limits as parents–I like to have them reminded that they should treat adults with some respect, and should definitely address adults by their sir names. Lastly, it’s a sign of respect and it’s better for my kids to err on the side of formality and having adults tell them to call them by their first name, than to be informal and offend someone. If they can do it with their teachers, they can do it with their friends’ parents.

    I never thought the day would come when I would be so “ol’ school” and insist on the use of formal names and appropriate introductions when kids talk to adults. But then again, I did not expect to have boys call my house and think it’s OK to simply hang up the phone if I was the one who answered the phone.


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    Lead Free Toys

    Posted on December 21, 2007. Filed under: Family Life | Tags: , , , , |


    Photo by rednuht

    I recently said to my husband “it seems like all the toy recalls we’ve been hearing about have stopped”. Then out comes a report from the Ecology Center which shows that only 20% of the toys they tested were lead free– only 20 percent! It’s Christmas time and my parents and sisters are asking what gifts to get for our kids. While my kids can say what they want to get, I have something to say about what they cannot get:

    • no guns or weapons
    • no Bratz dolls
    • no Barbie dolls
    • no TV products (meaning toys that promote TV shows or charaters-although I make exceptions for Dora The Explorer)
    • no video games or game consoles.

    Now I have to add “no toys with lead” to the list.

    Thanks to the Ecology Center, I can tell my family thay can go to to get a list of the lead levels in common toys. As an extra bonus, the report also includes levels of cadmium and arsenic found in toys……how great!

    Happy Holiday shopping!


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      Musings on how a disorganized woman with a full time job, three kids and a real need to relax is trying to make life simple.

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